Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Conversion is Crown Deep: Reassessing Helaman 4-6

Helaman 5 includes a long discussion of the preaching of Nephi and Lehi, and a rather remarkable vision and story. This includes a pillar of fire and ministering angels. Between Helaman 5:17-19 and 51-52 over 8,000 Lamanites around Zarahemla are converted, and they gave back all of the territory they conquered in chapter 4. The most perplexing to me is why did baptism result in major territorial change? It’s basically covered in one perfunctory verse yet there must have been some intense celebration and political wrangling. The current elites and governor would have to share or give power to the returning elites, and the sudden recovery of territory would have propelled Nephi and Lehi into stratospheres of popularity. Yet it gets a single verse, about half a chapter of happy talk, and then lots more talk about Gadianton Robbers. Nephi and Lehi remain somewhat aloof and even leave the land for many years (and chapters). Obviously there is something more going on here.

Why Convert In History

Luckily, we have plenty of historical precedent for mass conversions. In the space of about 100 years the Roman Empire went from persecuting them to having an Emperor convert and declares it the state religion. The German tribes that invaded often converted to a heretical version of Christianity which limited their influence with the people they ruled.[1] The Mongol rulers were surprisingly tolerant of Nestorian Christianity and a significant minority of them converted. Rising European states like Ukraine essentially held try outs between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and the personality of the missionaries and heads of church influenced the outcome a good deal.

There was more than sincere conversion that played a role. The political rulers could unify the realm under a central religious system. Though there was also some potential political division in the short term. Many of the Ukrainian nobles rebelled for example over their king’s conversion but were crushed or converted. The title of king was incredibly important in helping rulers overcome reluctant pagans and overcome revolts. From the Kingdom of Sicily to Poland all the way to the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD, a ruler often went to great lengths and made many concessions to get their crown sanctioned by the church. Being a Christian king allowed the ruler to consolidate his rule against his noble rivals who refused to convert.  Sadly, considering the message of love, it became another club that the rulers could use to beat their pagan subjects. Christian institutions such as churches and monasteries became important centers of revenue for the budding state.

The baptism of Clovis in 496 AD. Notice the combination of warrior like pose, crown, and spiritual ceremony. This was part of the beginning of early medieval France and the European community. 

Diplomatically the new Christian kingdom became part of the club. They often had closer relationships with other Christian kingdoms and diplomacy was easier. Baltic States that converted not only found new allies in defense, but they also received justification for crusades against their pagan neighbors.  The conversion of Lithuania shows many of these trends. The ruler vacillated between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, lobbied for a crown, sought marriage alliances that included conversion, thought conversion would help them rule their Eastern Orthodox subjects in their Russian territories, and viewed conversion as a way to end the crusade of Teutonic Knights against them.

The final benefit had to do with tools of statecraft. The new kings had to organize, equip, and feed armies as well as tax the nation.  The first alphabets for many Eastern Europeans languages were written by missionaries and the first written documents were translated Bibles. The Venerable Bede of Great Britain provided one of the first histories of that region. So the church ended up providing some of the most important tools of statecraft that expanded central power, provided for added administrative controls, and even wrote down their legends and founding myths that are important to every country.

Book of Mormon Conversion

Helaman 6 describes a brief period of peace after the mass Lamanite conversion. Given that most of the chapter shifts to discussing the Gadianton Robbers, I doubt the peace and prosperity was as widespread as it seems but the benefits are real. Politically, Helaman 4:4 discussed dissenters from the Nephites stir up Lamanites to battle, so it’s not surprising that some Lamanites might have resented the usurpation of power and think joining the Nephites was a better option.  Remember that Amalickiah and his brother and Nephew recently ruled the Lamanites. Ammoron’s son invaded the Nephites in Helaman 1, in the same time frame as Moronihah’s command in Helaman 4.  The contemporary leaders aren’t mentioned, but it’s likely that existing dissenters and the new ones in Helaman 4:4 likely assumed leadership positions in the Lamanite army, politics, and church.  

But with their conversion the Lamanites became part of the Nephite power and trading  structure.  Helaman 6:3 and 8 record “they did fellowship…[and] did have free intercourse one with another, to buy and to sell, and to get gain. They also became extremely “rich (Helaman 6:9.)” In fact, this is a great series of verses that discusses the many trades and crafts that exist from gold and silver mining to weaving and ranching.  This is a period of prosperity that likely discusses the strengthened Nephite position with the new converts. There is no word on leadership positions, but the chief judges are rarely mentioned by name, and when they are there is no backstory, and a distinct separation from the traditional centers of power that dominated in the book of Alma. This is very speculative but there is evidence of a political realignment that allows the possibility of power sharing with the Lamanites converts.  

At other points in the text, a rapprochement between the two sides led to greater written correspondence, which suggests a greater emphasis cultural communication and the tools of state craft mentioned above.[2]  The Lamanites are actually praised for using “every means” to “destroy” the Gadianton Robbers, which might be the only time in the scriptures their martial activities are praised. Talk about being part of the club and receiving justification for their actions! When the Lamanites are not part of the club they are described a warlike, bloodthirsty and plundering people.
In the church the Lamanites were respected by Mormon for their steadfast conversion, and they had positions of authority and influence as Samuel the Lamanite preachers in Helaman 6:4 came to Zarahemla.  and in military affairs the Lamanites received benefits for their conversion.
In matters of politics, statecraft, trade, the military and spiritual matters, the Lamanites benefited from their conversion.  They were no longer the indolent and violent outsider, but a part of the club. Even though the Lamanites participated in many of the same political wrangling and military maneuvers as before their conversion.

It’s true that Helaman chapter 6 says the Lamanites became more righteous in this period. The overall arch of the chapter which discussed wickedness and Gadianton Robbers for most of it, and the wickedness replete in Helaman and 3rd Nephi, combined with a more nuanced view of the benefits of conversion, suggest there is more to this conversion than a heartwarming story which included many benefits that enhanced their status within Nephite society.  I can’t help but wonder if the quick pride cycle and falling away by many church members throughout the Book of Helaman was because their conversion was only crown deep (Helaman 6:31).  

What do you think?


[1] Which I discuss in a chapter of my new book.
[2] I couldn’t find the specific verse. If somebody wants to mention it in the comments I’ll give you a million imaginary bonus points. 

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